There were three things that anchored Ayesha in life.

One, talking to her mother. It could be sitting next to her on that sofa in the lounge which was in desperate need of re-upholstery. It could be on the phone, with a bad internet connection and the constant frustration of calls dropping. Or it could be telepathic, like whenever her mother texted to ask what time she would be coming home at the exact moment Ayesha was getting ready to let her know. Any of these, and countless others forms of communication, could always bring Ayesha out of whatever fresh tangle of hellish thoughts she found herself in.

Two, her faith, even though lately she felt she was losing it.

And three, spending time with her niece and nephew. It didn’t have to be anything special. Perhaps just a board game they all played together; usually, she would try to let them win, though at times her own childish streak broke through and she would become petty and vindictive. It could just be an afternoon on the sun-drenched terrace, the girl reading a book, the boy playing with his cars, tangled up with Ayesha as she sat there absorbing their presence. It could be a game of blind man’s bluff which she found boring after a couple of turns. The time she spent with them reminded her of what was important.

Which would explain why she ended up doing what she did that day, with no one at home except her younger brother downstairs. She did not know she would be doing it; she certainly hadn’t planned on it. It just happened, and in that tiny moment it felt right, like it was the only rational thing that she could do.

She had woken up that morning with no particular plans. Her mother was traveling, having gone to help her sister with her newborn child. It was a girl, healthy and pretty, with the darkest eyelashes they had ever seen; everyone kept commenting how no one on their side of the family had such wisps of sooty charcoal.

Ayesha had breakfast, just coffee and a piece of toast. Then she went up to her room and began watching an old TV series on her laptop. A few episodes of a legal drama, none of which really held her attention, but it was something to do. Her thoughts kept drifting away to the relationships she had ended a few months ago. One was by mutual agreement, the other was of her own accord. The first decision had been agonizing to take, and was proving even more so to live with. The second had been a snap decision, but one about which she was extremely sure. The first was the loss of a future; the second was the shedding of a past. But those were two different stories.

Even so, they got her thinking, taking her down a road she didn’t immediately realize was as steep as it was dangerous. She sat there on her bed, her eyes staring at the screen in front of her but not seeing anything, and a vacuum began opening up inside her chest. It started at the back, right where she imagined the top of her stomach would be, and expanded into a cavernous bubble. But she didn’t even realize it was there until it began to reach outward, gripping her shoulders, making her breath shallower, dulling her eyes and making her arms fall listlessly to her sides.

“How long it’s been since I’ve felt this way,” she thought. Yet she made no effort to snap out of it. She might have, had it felt urgent in some way. If it had been like the burning disquiet she experienced right after a disagreement, or like the anger that sometimes caught her in its blinding force. But this, this was a quieter sensation. It was almost as if she was floating, and it was eerily calm. She thought she felt like a rusty old boat anchored in a stagnant pool. It was almost hypnotic, the peace of it, and she let herself stay that way for a while. Minutes passed before she decided to sit up straight, shut down her laptop, and look at the sun streaming in from her window. The moment had passed, but something else had happened too. It stayed with her, some part of it.

She thought back to how she had dealt with anger or depressing thoughts before. She was a cutter, though not one with any measure of courage. It would be an old blade she kept hidden deep inside the black leather flap of an office diary, where no one could find it. She would brush it against the skin on her left wrist, increasing pressure with each stroke until she could discern several red lines. But they were just scratches, nothing more.

“I wouldn’t have the guts to go any deeper than that,” she thought. “For heaven’s sake, I even sterilize the blade before I use it!” What kind of a cutter, she thought, what kind of a person ensnared in a tangle of angry and depressing thoughts, wanting to lash out, cut like that. With no commitment, no real intent. Just doing enough to make herself feel she had reacted and hurt herself, but which ended up as nothing more than a web of scratches on her wrist; they would be red and obvious to begin with until they faded into itchy white lines before disappearing altogether.

“I wouldn’t have the guts to really go through with something more,” she reflected.

And that realization was upsetting. Suddenly, she could not shake off the notion that she did not possess the courage to actually hurt herself in a way that would have a lasting physical impression, or which would leave her with more than irritated skin. She thought back to all the times she had contemplated taking her own life or running away, and how she had allowed herself to calm down before actually taking such a step. She thought she had come dangerously close a few times but had held back because she did not want her family to be upset. But this new realization meant all that had been a lie. She hadn’t stopped anything for her family’s sake. No. She had stopped because she didn’t have the guts to see something through.

It came down to one thing: she was not genuine. She was a fraud, a fake. She had only been pretending all along, lying to herself about how devastated she was and suggesting she was capable of violence against herself.

This epiphany, the thought that she was not feeling anything genuine, took hold of her mind and would not let go. It drew the full attention of all her thoughts and focused them into the single stream of consciousness. It was all she could see as she sat there. An absurd obsession that had ripped through the surface and would not be contained.

She had to address this.

To think her entire life that she had been in pain but had done nothing to react genuinely to it, could only mean that her pain was imagined and her suffering was not real. And this, she would not have. She would not be denied the pain she knew she had kept within her since as far back as she could remember. It was part of what made her who she was and she could not imagine it simply being dissolved. It had to be taken care of. She needed to prove to herself that she was not a phony.

In high school she had taken art. She was fairly good at it, though nothing creatively extraordinary; mostly still life done in pastels. But she would use a cutter for her collages in those days; she found it now inside her cupboard, in a box full of other junk. Walking towards the screen door that opened outside to the terrace, she slid down to the floor beside it and sat in the sun. Slowly, she slid the blade out a notch, then another notch, and another. No sterilizing it this time.

First she tried running it over her wrist, lightly. Then a little harder, until a couple of red lines appeared, though nothing that would spill. Quietly, she rolled up her left sleeve and stared at the fleshy white skin just below the inside of her elbow. If she wanted to do more damage, she had to be sure it would be in a place she could cover up and hide. The wrists wouldn’t do.

The blade didn’t even feel threatening against her skin. Slowly, almost suggestively, holding the blade at an angle to her arm, she slid the blade along the surface, imagining what it would be like if she had the guts to slice deeper than she had before. Back and forth, back and forth, like a possessed saw, went the cutter. “It’s the same story all over again,” she thought. “You’ll never really go through with it. Not because you’re a coward. But because you aren’t as hurt you’d like to believe.”

It was that last thought that finally pushed her.

Before she could think, before she could draw another breath, she closed her eyes and sliced through her skin as fast as she could in one quick motion, and then looked down. For a split second, she saw the bluish-white insides of the cut, before a rich, dark red poured into the gap like the Red Sea rushing down on the Pharoah.

All she could think of was, “well, this will be a lot harder to hide from the family.”